Simona Guagliardo / Feb 2021
A year has passed since a novel coronavirus was first identified in China, and the world is still battling the spread of COVID-19. In response to the pandemic, the first steps towards a strengthened EU health agenda have been taken. Will they be enough to ‘build back better’ and create healthier and more resilient European societies?
The pandemic is inflicting massive costs on the European population and society. Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control reveal that by the end of January 2021, over 103 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, leading to 2.2 million deaths. In the EU and European Economic Area alone, almost 20 million people have been infected- 470,000 of which have died. The pandemic is also worsening existing social and health inequalities across Europe. Ethnic minorities, people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds or those living in deprived areas are hit disproportionally and are most at risk.
Many national health systems across Europe are strained beyond their capacity and health workforces are stretched thin, struggling to respond to the overwhelming rise in the demand for urgent care. As health systems’ resources are redirected to fighting the pandemic, non-COVID-19 care faces disruptions. Patients must confront delayed or missed diagnoses and hindered continuity of care. Sometimes they even forego medical care.
The pandemic and the socioeconomic shock are a wake-up call for European leaders. They a stark reminder that more needs to be done to protect European citizens and societies from the risks of a public health crisis and to make sure no one is left behind.
Building on the early lessons of the pandemic, the Commission took the first steps to develop a strong European Health Union (EHU) and maximise EU health action within the existing institutional framework. The EHU project includes, so far, a revamped health security framework for cross-border cooperation; proposals to strengthen the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Medicines Agency; a new Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe; and, last but not least, Europe's Beating Cancer Plan.
Furthermore, health was given a far more prominent place in the Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027. For the first time since its inception in 2003, the new health programme (EU4Health) can count on substantial funding: €5.1 billion, ten times more than in the previous EU budget. Health investments will also come from other EU instruments, including Horizon Europe, the European Social Fund Plus, and the Recovery and Resilience Facility, just to mention a few.
These first measures are fundamental stepping-stones of a new vision for health in Europe. But this should only be the beginning. To turn this vision into a reality, EU leaders must lay the foundations for resilient national health systems while fostering a COVID-19 recovery centred on well-being.
Member states must prioritise structurally transforming their health systems in the context of the 2021 European Semester cycle and make good use of the large-scale financial support coming from the Recovery and Resilience Facility. The Commission can play a crucial role in supporting this transformation by designing – together with member states – a common framework to assess and improve health systems’ performance.
More importantly, EU leaders must put people’s good health and well-being at the core of all policymaking. To ‘build back better’ the EU should move away from only measuring progress in terms of economic growth. A first step should be to develop and use common methods to measure people’s well-being while also implementing well-being impact assessments of policy initiatives. If Europe is to become more resilient and fairer, EU leaders must also prioritise social investment in their recovery plans, and rethink EU fiscal rules to exempt social investment from government deficit calculations.
All of this should be bolstered by a serious reflection on the EU’s role in health. An open and frank discussion on the feasibility and desirability of transferring some health competences to the EU level can no longer be ignored. The Conference on the Future of Europe is the ideal venue to engage with citizens and civil society and start the debate on levelling up the EU’s role in health policy.
The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last health crisis Europe will ever have to face. Any tangible progress that the EU27 achieves in building a robust Health Union will not only be invaluable for managing today’s crisis, but also for preparing for future – and perhaps even more severe – health challenges.
This piece is based on a longer European Policy Centre (EPC) Policy Brief, which was first published on 21 January 2021 on the EPC website (“Turning a new vision into reality: What next for the EU’s role in health?”).